No, this is not a column about the 1972 Miami Dolphins team who went on undefeated to win Super Bowl VII in a perfect 17-0 season. The greatest team ever fielded is a phase used by historian Walter Isaacson to describe the incredible collection of patriotism, brilliance, passion, vision, and rectitude that is the Founding Fathers.
Among the Founding Fathers we find John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin who were members of the Committee of Five that drafted the Declaration of Independence. Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay who authored The Federalist Papers advocating ratification of the Constitution; and, of course, George Washington, Commander-in Chief of the Continental Army and President of the Constitutional Convention.
Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and Madison went on to serve as presidents, Jay served as our first Chief Justice; Hamilton as first Secretary of the Treasury, and Franklin as our most senior diplomat. Their contributions to American constitutionalism and citizenship are incalculable as when Washington, attending the inaugural ceremonies of John Adams as his successor, insisted on walking behind Adams, thus demonstrating the peaceful transfer of power under the new Constitution.
Washington’s most magnificent legacy is that he did not perpetuate himself in power as other victorious revolutionaries had done before, and have done since. He willingly gave up power, in an era of kings, when there was no precedent of a former head of state. When Washington left the presidency, he established the principle that the power of the presidency is vested in the office and not in its occupant.
Historically less understood are the core ideas that informed the political thinking of the Founders. In his book “The Political Theory of the American Founding”, Thomas G. West argues that natural rights doctrine is the centerpiece of the Founders’ political theory. Indeed, the Founders declared independence with natural rights theory as their justification.
In their simplest formulation, natural rights are the rights to life, liberty, and property that every person has. Natural rights do not come from government, and cannot be denied by government.
Natural rights are fundamentally different from legal rights which are granted by government and can be taken away by government. Natural rights derive from our human nature and are inalienable as the Founders stated. Liberty and property are natural rights because they are indispensable for a happy life. And, for the first time in human history, the Founders team created a government organized around our natural rights.
Rights are connected to liberty and the Founders understood that, any government embodies restrictions on liberty. Consequently, they sought to design a government that was capable, yet remained constrained by the people. However, they were also fearful of too much popular participation in government and thus conceived the Electoral College to elect the president and, at that time, the indirect election of senators by state legislatures.
Also central to the Founder’s political vision was the civic virtues needed for a free society. As Franklin put it: “only a virtuous people are capable of freedom. As nations become corrupt and vicious, they have more needs of masters.” Or, in Jefferson’s words, “if a nation expects to be ignorant and free…it expects what never was and never will be.” Or Madison, “…a government must be fitted to a nation as much as a coat to the individual.” In other words, whereas liberty may be a basic aspiration of all human beings, political freedom may not be possible for all societies.
So, what is government for? What should government do? The Founders’ answer was that the fundamental purpose of government is to secure and defend our natural rights. Thus, any government constructed in harmony with our natural rights must be limited, and subject to the consent of the governed.
It is unfortunate that today we no longer guide our political vision by the limited government philosophy of the Founders, and we unthoughtfully ascribe to government almost limitless functions. This endangers our freedoms. The alternative to a government limited to protecting our life, liberty and property is one that delivers death, repression, and destitution.
Dr. Azel‘s latest book is “Liberty for Beginners.”